Thursday, July 17, 2008

Simple Living the Easy Way, Part III

So, we left off with the myth of self-reliance and the underlying guilt that I suspect fuels the perpetuation of that myth. The big question, as I see it, is why Western culture in general, but American culture more specifically, has at its center the idea of self-reliance as a moral virtue?

I would argue that the whole idea of the individual, independent or dependent, is a product of the Enlightenment and the colonial culture that went along with it. Prior to roughly the 18th century or so, "individual" wasn't a Western concept in the same way it is now. People were part of larger wholes: family, church, community. At the time when John Donne wrote his "No Man is an Island" meditation in 1624, death was an ever-present part of life, and community was integral to survival. People felt strongly their connection to and embeddedness in larger systems, and it's that sense of connection that Donne sought to convey:

No man is an island entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main;
if a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were,
as well as any manner of thy friends or of thine own were;
any man's death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind.
And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.

As real property and the aristocracy began to erode and the middle class arose triumphant on the wave of colonial consumption in the 17 and 1800's, the idea of the self-made man—the individual as we have inherited the concept—was born. Philosophy and literature were heady with the infinite possibility presented by the self-made man, never mind the nagging little fact that he was made on the backs of women, children, and people of color who didn't get to self-define.

Well, there was a whole lot more history in there, but that's the general gist of things. Writers like Locke and Hobbes paved the way for thinkers like Wordsworth over in England and his Romantic counterparts Thoreau and Emerson over in America decades later, who eventually gave way to Whitman, radical individualist and author of "Song of Myself," a celebration of that particular brand of rugged American individualism. Over on the continent, Friedrich Nietzsche was extolling his very own version of radical individualism in works like Thus Spake Zarathustra and Beyond Good and Evil.

Radical individualism, then, is a huge part of Western consciousness, built over centuries of political and social thought. So, too, is it an important part of the American dream and a deeply rooted meme in the American psyche. Think Marlboro Man. Only, the Marlboro Man didn't have a wife or children, did he?

No. What we get instead is a very different version of homesteading independence when families are involved, but still with the rugged patriarchal figurehead firmly at the helm. Think Pa Ingalls, who moves his family from one place to another in search of his own illusive self-reliant masculinity only to be thwarted at nearly every turn by the government, the weather, and just plain bad luck—not to mention haunted at the margins by rebellious natives. Maybe a more admirable figurehead is Mr. Wilder who discourses persuasively with Almanzo on the true freedom enjoyed by the self-reliant farmer versus the servile dependence of the businessman in town. But he, too, even in his level-headedness represents the benevolent master in all his glory.

What I'm seeking here—both in this long-winded post and in my life on our homestead—is not a replication of that kind of authoritarian self-reliance that depends upon the unacknowledged work of others but rather a kind of interdependence that seeks its model outside the pervasive myths of our culture, leaving guilt and force behind.

What does that model look like, you might ask?

Well, that's a really good question to which I can only respond that, for me, that model is unfolding day by day... in the thousand little steps of the journey and the thousand little ways in which I respond to those around me: partner, children, animals, plants, soil, creatures, earth, universe.

Some moments are better than others, and I work in harmony with the life forces I share this independence with, following a mutual path of least resistance and least harm. Other moments, I lose my way and find myself resorting to force. But something—usually the utter ineffectuality of trying to force a particular outcome—jolts me awake to a more mindful way of relating and I come back to the knowledge that I am only a very small part of what holds this self-reliance together even as I am, paradoxically, a huge part of it.


Lewru said...

Danielle - as always - terrific post!

The subject of individualism has come up a lot for me within the context of eco-psychology and the ecological balance of mind/body, people/planet...Rugged individualism has become such a reified myth in our culture that it's been built in to how we interpret health and mental health. People question themselves if they're too dependent. Diagnoses incorporate aspects of over-dependence. Part of "healthy development" is individuation from parents and family of origin. Interdependence and tribalism have fallen to the wayside outside of discussions of non-Western culture.

And yet it is such a myth! You're right no man is an island. No person can get along in this world without others without some serious psychological ramifications! We are a fundamentally social species with an inborn need to belong that has probably kept us viable as a group on this planet.

And yet somehow the past hundred years has centered on fooling ourselves that the Great White Hunter, the Great White Explorer, the Great White Mountaineer, what have you, can and should be going it alone. How weird is that? (And I am wrong about the ethnicity part?)

Such a thoughtful post - you really got me going this morning!

el said...

You know, the Wilders always ate better than the Ingalls. :)

LisaZ said...

What a great post. I love philosophy! And I think this subject is extremely important, because we are interdependent on other humans as well as animals and the nature that surrounds us. The whole "self-reliant, self-sufficient" ethic that's coming out is noble in that we all do need to get away from our reliance on oil and transport as well as cheap goods made in other countries, etc.

But, we also need to recognize how very dependent we are on others, especially as food and other necessities become more scarce and precious. I love what you're doing on your homestead, but I also get really excited about what I'm doing which is the so-called "urban homesteading". This new "movement" gets me going because in it I can see that while we are trying to raise much of our own food, we are still so obviously dependent on the cooperation and good will of our neighbors--as well as surrounding farms b/c we need some products such as grain and dairy from farmers...

But just the other day my husband and a neighbor were discussing the idea that the neighbor should grow the tomatoes because his garden spot is very sunny and we have a harder time with them in our shadier lot. However, the potatoes, cabbages, etc. are growing fabulously in our soil so we could grow mass quantities of that and do a swap for tomatoes.

We happen to live in a wonderful neighborhood where this will probably actually happen! We have the ethic of cooperation here, and that will get more necessary in the future I believe.

There will be no "running for the hills" for my family. So far this urban thing with lots of neighbors (some good some not so helpful) is working great for us.